Chuck Close, one of the most penetrating portrait painters of our time, was not somebody I knew well but he was always pleasant when we met, and some years ago I paid him a studio visit. Close, who has been wheelchair-bound by spinal paralysis since the late Eighties, has nonetheless pursued a highly successful painting career — he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 2000 — and I was keen to ask about his methodology. It was known that he works from his own photographs and I was fascinated to see how radically his way of getting a likeness differed from that of Richard Avedon, another great portraitist. Avedon would wait for a sitter to assume a pose, wait impassively as it crumbled, then… pffft! But Close liked to work closely with his sitters. It wasn’t an ambush but an alliance.
So I thought I had Close figured out pretty well. But then, in April 2012, I watched him being interviewed by the talk-show host Charlie Rose and learned that he suffered from a cocktail of neurological conditions that made him unable to recognise even family and close friends. He was totally dependent on picking up signals to distinguish who was who but was agile at doing so, even with acquaintances. And he had developed ways of painting — brush strapped to his wrist, he grids each canvas, filling them in, square by square — which result in portraits of uncanny accuracy.
Close will still be unable to recognise the sitter outside, face to face, but he refuses to accept that he would have been a better artist if he were dealing from a full neurological deck. ‘Everything in my work is directly related to my learning disabilities,’ he says.
Indeed, there’s a history of artists and writers confronting physical handicaps and not just dealing with them, but turning them to advantage. Like Goya, stone-deaf from early youth, so with a lifelong fear of going blind, who became a prolific artist. Or clubfooted Byron, the legendary seducer. Or the impotent DH Lawrence, becoming a full-blooded mouthpiece of the sexual revolution.
Writers have homed in on this tempting subject. The Wound and the Bow, a book of essays by the great American critic Edmund Wilson, was published in 1941 and took its name from the Homeric myth of Philoctetes, who had such a suppurating abscess that the Greeks didn’t want him around, except he was a lethal archer whom they needed for the siege of Troy. You’ve probably met artists or writers like that, right?
Then there was a more medically detailed volume, The World through Blunted Sight, by the late British eye surgeon Patrick Trevor-Roper. Published in 1971, it analysed how various vision impediments — degrees of colour blindness, misshapen eyeballs etc — might have affected the work of specific artists. Did Dürer have a squint? Was El Greco astigmatic? The book is jam-packed with good stuff but was controversial, especially within his profession, because no useful records were made then. As for the impact of El Greco’s supposed astigmatism on his style, he was hardly the only Mannerist to elongate the human figure.
Medical advances in the later 19th century changed all that. Researchers have stuff with which to work. Records of artists’ sight problems are plentiful, as are insights into how these affected their work. Dr Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University in California, has written a great deal on this subject, including a book, Degas through His Own Eyes, in which he describes the deterioration in the artist’s vision between 1860 and 1910 and the very discernible effects on his work. ‘Friends would ask Degas, “Why are you still painting?”‘ he wrote.
The eyesight of Impressionist Mary Cassatt began to weaken in 1900. She was 56. A few years later she stopped making prints and in 1913 she wrote to her friend, the great collector and suffragist Louisine Havemeyer, that ‘nothing takes it out of one like painting. I have only to look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and Renoir and Monet too.’ She gave up painting in 1915.
Those tales have more to do with healthcare than with art, but the Claude Monet story is more painterly. Monet played the lead in the drama of Impressionism and was perhaps its most brilliant practitioner. In 1905, when he was 65, he realised that his perceptions of colour were becoming less intense, that his preferences were shifting from white, blues and greens to duller yellows and purples. In 1912 Monet was diagnosed as having nuclear cataracts in both eyes. These absorb light, yellowing the world.
Monet was upset but also interested by these changes, being the man of whom Cézanne said: ‘Only an eye. But what an eye!’ In 1922 he wrote to his gallerists, Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune: ‘I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it is this which I’d love to be able to convey. All in all I am very unhappy.’ In his eighties he differentiated colours by reading the labels and keeping them in the same order on his palette. He died at 86.
This study came out of a conversation with artist Ford Crull shortly before his recent opening in New York’s Carter Burden Gallery. His canvases frequently use numerals, symbols and/or letters of the alphabet and they are obviously not decorative motifs. They have meaning. I also knew that Crull had synaesthesia, a condition not unusual among artists and writers, which can take various forms. And it is by no means uncommon in the arts. According to the (admittedly sometimes iffy) authority of Wikipedia, Vladimir Nabokov, Duke Ellington, Olivier Messiaen and Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, all experienced one form of synaesthesia or another.
Putting it at its simplest, it represents a mixing, a confusing of the languages of the senses. Back in the day such effects were associated with the use of hallucinogenics. This goes to the point that it can enrich rather than disable, as it has with Crull, who felt the effects most powerfully, sometimes disturbingly, as a child. Numbers, letters of the alphabet and symbols swamped him with sensations of specific colour. He would learn that this condition had a name and as he grew up it tempered, becoming less a bewildering storm, more a background noise, but it’s there, always.
What follows is a passage on the subject, taken from his notes to himself: ‘1 is all colors put together, like a rainbow is contained in a piece of glass or quartz depending how the light is refracted from it. It is generally male and has a high spiritual factor… 2 is yellow and generally young. It can be male or female. It is happy and innocent, and inquisitive. There is a sense of naïveté about it but it generally is on the move… 3 is negative and yellow-ochre. It is more malicious than evil, but is still young. Can be male or female… 4 is regal and is a reflex blue (dark blue). It is a very high number and represents royalty. It is male and very wise. It is old. This number has experience and wisdom, like a king should… 5 is very positive and joyful. It is red. It represents enthusiasm. It is on the move exploring and learning and has a lot of energy. It is generally male but can be a powerful female as well… 6 is bad, evil. Something to be avoided. It will cause trouble if it can. It is like a bad spirit. It generally has no gender…’
Letters of the alphabet and symbols, including those used by ancient cultures, equally pulse with meaning for Crull. ‘A is like a professor, solid and stable,’ he says. ‘Capital Rs seem masculine but smart and yet have a sense of irony. They have a wry smile and are always moving. S is for me kind of red, and it can be either gender, but is mysterious. It does not give its secrets easily. It reminds me of a river, constantly changing and reinventing itself.’
Synaesthesia seems, of its nature, to be less a handicap to be dealt with than a sometimes overwhelming resource. It’s clear that, like many extreme physical, visual or neurological experiences an artist confronts, it can prove a dark blessing.